Monday, October 29, 2012

Siachen Handout: Bartering India's Security

by Kunal Verma

 "Let us not get carried away by what can at best be described as sentimental hogwash"-- General (Retd) VK Singh

The 50th Anniversary of the Indo-China War has evoked a feeling of anger not so much at the Chinese, but towards our own leadership that failed the country in the most shocking manner. Amidst the groundswell of emotion that swept through television channels and the media, the Ministry of Defence could not take the risk of continuing to tow the Congress dominated line of ignoring the 1962 War. Finally, fifty years after Chinese mortars had shattered the morning stillness on the Namka Chu on October 20, 1962, our own bugles played the last post at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. In a symbolic gesture that has far reaching ramifications, the three Service Chiefs and the Defence Minister, finally lined up and saluted the dead!

Since Independence, the Indian soldier has been called upon time and again to clear the mess, usually at the point of the bayonet, that has been made by our bungling civilian leadership. The examples are endless: the ceasefire in 1949 when Indian troops were poised to regain the whole of Jammu and Kashmir; the Tashkent Agreement returning to Pakistan vital posts like Haji Pir and Black Rock in Kargil in 1965; the repatriation of 93,000 POWs to Pakistan in 1971 without ensuring the return of a handful of our own men (some of whom are still languishing in Pakistani jails); the list can be quite exhaustive. Now, ironically, as we mourn our dead in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh, the Government is poised to add yet another feather in its cap of bungles. Quite frankly, if the latest PMO initiative on the so-called demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier is pushed through, it could well be the mother of all bungles!

After its obsession with Kashmir since 1947, Siachen has been the biggest bone that is stuck in Pakistan’s throat since it lost the glacier to the Indian Army in 1984. For years, talks between the two countries had been held on the issue and after the Kargil War in 1999, the situation on the ground had more or less stabilized itself. Then most incredibly, since November 2011, rumours of an impending settlement on Siachen began to surface. Then the odd articles began to sporadically appear in the media, mainly questioning the wisdom of having gone into the area in 1984, while focusing on the expense factor both material and in terms of human lives always implying that India was sitting on a wasteland that had little or no strategic value.

All this time meetings between Indian and Pakistani Track II members were indeed being held to discuss various CBMs, among which Siachen was a key issue. Dubai (September 2011), Bangkok (February), Chiang Mai (April) and Palo Alto (July) preceded the Lahore meeting on 23-25 September where a formal agreement to demilitarize Siachen was inked. That the Lahore delegation was acting on a predetermined brief was fairly obvious, for the handshake was done despite the formal reservations of certain key members of the delegation.

The Lahore agreement was more or less kept under wraps, but the Atlantic Council of Canada that acted as a broker on Siachen let the cat out of the bag. The composition of the Indian delegation was, to put it mildly, incongruous for despite an impressive array of ranks (including a retired Air Chief), none of the Army officers had ever served in the region. The Pakistani side, on the other hand, was led by Jehangir Karamat, a former Pakistan Army Chief who understands the strategic implications of the Siachen region.

Says General VK Singh, who handed over charge of the Indian Army earlier this year: Let us first be very clear as to who is asking for this so-called demilitarization. The Pakistanis are not on the Siachen Glacier, but are west of the Saltoro Range. Contrary to what they want their own people to believe, they have a zero presence in Siachen. I wonder if demilitarization will also result in Pakistan withdrawing from Baltistan, pulling back to the west towards the Karakoram Highway? Until recently, they had even refused to accept the AGPL for verification of who is where. It is ludicrous that in such circumstances we are talking of demilitarization and withdrawal. Our troops are well established and administratively well off so what is the rational to pull them out of the area?

Lt General PC Katoch, a former commander of the Siachen Brigade adds: For decades, India has always distrusted the Atlantic Council, which is perceived to be in bed with the Pakistani military. In this arrangement Pakistan has grabbed the strategic opportunity to attain all its key goals. It is surmised that the PM is aiming for a Nobel Peace Prize to recover the legitimacy his Government has lost after a succession of scandals.

Post the Shimla Agreement in 1972, the delineation of the LC between India and Pakistan extended up to NJ 9842. Beyond this, the two sides agreed that the LC would run henceforth to the north. This clearly implied that the boundary would follow the ridgeline to the north along the Saltoro, but subsequently both Pakistani and USAF maps later drew a lateral line from NJ 9842 directly to the KK Pass which implied that the area belonged to Pakistan. A subsequent mountaineering expedition to Siachen found plenty of evidence of activity east of the Saltoro. Given the extreme conditions in what was at the time often referred to as the ‘Third pole’ the Indian Army pulled off one of the most innovative and daring operations by pre-empting the Pakistani Army which was rushing to occupy the heights that would dominate the glacier.

Having been beaten at their own game (as acknowledged even by Musharaff in his book) the Pakistani Army subsequently succeeded in establishing a foothold on the 22,143 feet Qaid-e-Azam post, its only real significant position on the Saltoro at the time. In 1987, in what surely must rank as one of the most incredible military operations, men from 8 JAK LI pulled off the near impossible and wrested it from Pakistan. Re-named ‘Bana Top’ after Subedar Bana Singh who led the attack, even today Pakistan does not acknowledge its loss. After all the fighting on the glacier over the years, the bottom line is that Pakistan has no worthwhile presence on the Saltoro!

Whether the Nobel Peace Prize is the ultimate motivating factor or not, the general perception is that the PMO is acting under US pressure to demilitarize Siachen. In Baltistan, Pakistan’s position is precarious, as its anti-Shia policies over the years have alienated it from the local population. Most observers believe that even maintaining its current position west of Saltoro is now becoming untenable. Watchdog groups in the West, along with a few vernacular Pakistani newspapers, have been regularly reporting on parleys to hand over the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region to China on a fifty-year lease. It is perhaps pertinent to point out that the Shaksgam Valley (to the immediate north of the Siachen region) was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963 while the area to the east was occupied by the PLA in 1962 to provide depth to the Western Highway.

In an ever-changing geo-political scenario, to look at Siachen only from an India-Pakistan perspective is absurd, especially as Chinese footprints over the entire Northern Areas are getting more and more obvious by the day. From the US point of view the geo-political relationship between them and Pakistan has always revolved around the Gilgit-Baltistan region. A counter balance and a possible launching pad against Tibet (perceived to be China’s soft underbelly) the Northern Areas have always been the hub around which the Great Game was played. Talk of leasing the region to China cannot be lost on the Americans, who would be desperate to keep Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan and keep the Chinese out, especially as China is today also making serious attempts to cut its way through the Wakhan corridor into Afghanistan. By getting India to take a step back on Siachen, it gives the Pakistan leadership the incentive to hold on to the region, for the border with north-western Ladakh, which is currently static, becomes active again. In the guise of lace moves the new situation sought to be thrust upon us is far more dangerous. India has never understood the British concept of pushing its frontiers out, and has a history of losing ground regularly. As Maroof Raza points out, Siachen has been the one exception where India has gained ground since Independence.

Let us for the moment forget about everything else demarcating positions, joint patrolling, CBMs et all, which are being talked about in the Lahore Agreement. Let us just ask a simple question demilitarization of Siachen will mean drawing up a new defensive line. Where exactly is that supposed to be drawn? To fortify the area south of the Shyok River means fortifying the entire Ladakh range, which would require at least two divisions and would sooner or later make Leh, like Kargil town, a front line target of enemy artillery guns. The Chinese pooh-pah the McMahon line on the grounds that it was drawn up by the Tibetans and so it has no sanctity; tomorrow if the region is leased to them, how do they care what was decided with Pakistan!

Over the years, subsequent Army Chiefs, including the current COAS General Bikram Singh, have categorically rejected the demilitarization of Siachen. Says an incensed General VK Singh: Have the proposers of such recommendations ever visited or stayed at the glacier or the higher posts? Has our trust deficit with Pakistan disappeared? Please remember what happened after PM Vajpaye's visit to Lahore. We must also be clear on the implications of this to our stand on the Shaksgam Valley. Has the government or the Track 2 team sent by it decided that we have no further claim on POK? Let us not get carried away by what can at best be described as sentimental hogwash.

A weak opposition that regularly fails to take on a scandal-ridden Government on key issues be it nuclear power, FDI or whatever and the growing perception that the PMO is simply doing what they are told to do by the World Bank and the West with complete disregard to the interests of the country is indicative of a complete policy vacuum. If the UPA II walks like a duck, talks like a duck and behaves like a duck, it must be a duck and the country must recognize it for what it is! The main trouble is, the egg that it now lays in the last few days of its reign at the top can emerge as a monster of epic proportions. The Government of India cannot be allowed to barter away our control over Siachen in return for some nefarious political gain that it might want to garner.

Kunal Verma is the author of The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why and The Northeast Trilogy. A filmmaker, he has been professionally associated with the Armed Forces for over two decades. His films include The Standard Bearers (National Defence Academy), The Making of a Warrior (Indian Military Academy), Aakash Yodha (IAF), The Naval Dimension and Kashmir: Baramula to Kargil among others.

"Here then is the larger question. Can a small cabal take such a monumental decision without involving the People, Parliament and President of India? Can the PMO be allowed to barter away our control over Siachen in return for some nefarious political gain or a ‘Nobel Prize’ These questions have to be asked and satisfactorily answered if India is indeed a Democracy!" M G Devasahayam

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